We get a great range of enquiries about the history of mechanical engineering and also, due to the launch of our membership records on Ancestry, we have had a surge of interest from people trying to uncover their family history. At the Institution we are expanding our digitisation programme to make our collections as accessible as possible. Digitisation is a long, expensive and sometimes unsuitable option (we cannot, for example, make membership records post-1930 available online due to the data protection act). We work to make collections as available as possible, and through sharing information we can help researchers.
Using one member’s name from a recent enquiry – John Alfred Griffiths (1848-1933) – here are some different ways you can use records for family history research.
The search engine is currently undergoing development to make it easier to use and more effective, it is still searchable in the meantime. To achieve maximum results (unless you know an exact reference number) use the ‘anytext’ field. Using the example of John Alfred Griffiths, after inputting his name you will find membership records for Griffiths and that he was a Whitworth scholar. You will also find that the Institution holds a paper he wrote on windmills.
As Griffiths pre-dates the 1930 cut-off you can go online and see his membership records. Institution members can do this for free via the Virtual Library; other researchers can take advantage of Ancestry’s trial membership or use the computers in our Library for free access. A note on John Alfred Griffiths’ membership record gives further clues as to his activities, such as his association with the Royal School of Mines, that can then be followed up.
Use clues within archives to broaden your search. If an organisation no longer exists you can search for its successor or see if it had its own archive. For example, the Royal School of Mines archive is at Imperial College.
If you are looking for someone post-1930 email firstname.lastname@example.org
You can check if Griffiths ever gave a paper through the Institution’s Library catalogue or on the Proceedings Archive and members can read it via our Virtual Library. Email email@example.com if you are not an Institution member. Griffiths’ article on the distribution of wheel load in cycles tells you that he was involved in the manufacture of cycles and it provides details on production and illustrations of models.
When you begin a search, the quantity of results can seem daunting, as can knowing whether information is bone fide. Here are a few tricks to help:
Input terms like, ‘cycle company + Birmingham’. Check that the page is from an authentic source, such as a university; if it is from Wikipedia (or similar) check any references given. If you search Griffiths by name you will find an Australian Dictionary of Biography, where a reference to his Whitworth Scholarship confirms it is the right person. You also find that he set up a foundry in Australia, Griffiths Bros & Co. It confirms that he was involved in windmill production and the manufacturing of cycles in Coventry from 1885 to 1887.
This register lists archival collections and their whereabouts. You can link to the corresponding repository and find out how to visit or gain access. From the steps taken above, we know that Griffiths co-founded a company and worked in Coventry, and these clues can lead us to discover that the main cycle company (Starley) of the era has an archive at Warwick University. You can therefore enquire about Griffiths there. All sorts of names – including personal, place and business – can be searched this way. It is always worth checking if a person or company is listed. I found the record by searching for Starley under corporate name.
The National Archives’ own catalogue can also be searched and there are guides available to help with finding and using archives. There are links available to fascinating projects, such as to make all World War I service records accessible online. Many other countries have an equivalent national archive institution, which can be found by doing a web search for national archives and the country of interest. For Griffiths, records of his patents can be found in this way.
The Archives Hub lists collections held by universities, educational institutions and specialist repositories. If you search Starley on here you will also find the University of Warwick’s collection but more details of what it contains are available. The Hub also has monthly archive-related articles.
Everybody should be able to find collections held by local and county record offices on the NRA but if you know a collection has a local tie, for example, it is based in a certain city (such as Starley and Coventry) and you can’t find it, it is worth checking with the local office in case the collection is not yet catalogued. Many offices do not advertise collections until they are catalogued for security (and other) reasons. In some cases access will not be allowed, but it is worth checking. Local offices hold official records such as for county councils as well as those of individuals, families, estates and businesses with strong area links.
Birth and death records can be found via Ancestry. Putting in dates will help you to find relevant information. If you cannot find information using a full name try using initials. In the Institution’s Proceedings Archive for example, Griffiths’ name is found under J Alfred Griffiths because that is how it is written on his paper. Bear in mind that collections tend to be made accessible when catalogued, but most are not yet digitised.